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Primer: Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Problem of Mind July 26, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Primer, History of the Human Sciences.
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Claude Lévi-Strauss (b.1908-), according to the well-known anthropologist, the “functionalist” and  student of Bronislaw Malinowski, Edmund Ronald Leach, is the most famous representative of the first of dual traditions of social anthropology.  The founder of the first tradition was the British anthropologist Sir James Frazer (1854-1941).  According to Leach, Frazer was a man “of monumental learning who had no first-hand acquaintance with the lives of primitive people about whom he wrote.”  (Claude-Levi Strauss, 1)  Rather than study a culture in minute detail, Frazer wished to understand the primitive consciousness on a world-historical scale.  The progenitor of the second tradition was Bronislaw Malinowski who “spent most of his academic life analyzing the results of research which he had himself had personally conducted over a period of four years in a single small village in far off Melanesia.”  Malinowski was far more interested in how an individual communities social systems “functioned” than in developing a grand narrative of the primitive consciousness.  Although not in the “style” of Frazer, Levi-Strauss is more concerned with the discovery of true “facts” about a general “human mind.”  He is less concerned, according to Leach, with the “organization of any particular society or class of societies.”  For Leach, this difference is “fundamental.”

Leach, while disagreeing with much of Levi-Strauss’ work, nonetheless had a sound understanding of Levi-Strauss’ argument.  According to Leach, structuralism begins with the biological faculties, quite similar to the philosophical anthropology of Hans Jonas and Arnold Gehlen in Germany, articulated around the same time.   The phenomenon perceived by the human mind, “have the characteristics which we attribute to them because of the way our senses operate and the way the human brain is designed to order and interpret the stimuli which are fed into it.”  As man is consistently (more…)

Primer: Malinowski and the Problem of Culture April 9, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Primer, History of the Human Sciences.
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Bronisław Kasper Malinowski (1884-1942) was the founder of the branch of Social Anthropology known as functionalism.  Functionalism maintains that every aspect of the culture of a people, past or present, serves a purpose for the long-term maintenance of that society.   Malinowski inaugurated a new standard for field-work, and served as an exemplar of ethnographic observation and inference for a generation of anthropologists.  As a theoretician and as a individual, opinion of Malinowski remains sharply polarized.

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The British social anthropologist, Audrey I. Richards, as related in Jerry D. Moore’s Visions of Culture (2008), observed that Malinowski’s concept of culture was “one of his most stimulating contributions to the anthropological thought of his day.”  Conversely, the anthropologist Edmund Leach opposed Malinowski’s contributions to ethnographic fieldwork to his dubious theoretical formulations.  Leach noted that while Malinowski altered “the whole mode and purpose of ethnographic inquiry” he also made “numerous theoretical pronouncements of a general, abstract,sociological kind.”  Malinowski’s conception of “Culture” amounted to a “platitudinous bore.”  According to Malinowski’s former student, Raymond Firth, Malinowski the man was either loved or hated, lauded as an artist or derided as a “pretentious Messiah of the credulous.” (more…)